Over the past few posts, I have been looking at songs on Karpe Diem’s Heisann Montebello. Today, I want to continue that discussion by looking at «Hvite menn som pusher 50» (“White men pushing 50”). This is the second song on the album, following «Au pair», a song that sets up the ways that the album will interrogate whiteness, white privilege, and wealth. This interrogation runs throughout the song, but two lines in particular encapsulate this thread: «Du kaller det mamma, vi kaller det samma for» (“You call it mamma, we call it the same”) and «Mammaen til Pernille er fra Manila» (“Pernille’s mother is from Manila”). In the latter line, Pernille’s mother is the au pair.
«Hvite menn som pusher 50» continues these threads and pulls upon the tensions that Magdi raps about at the end of «Lett å være rebell i kjellerleiligheten din» when he asks if he can be forgiven for wanting a car and a boat. When thinking about these themes in the song, the refrain keeps coming to my mind, so rather than starting with the first verse, I want to parse out the refrain, a section that only contains one line and three words, repeated four times.
First, the refrain plays upon the title of the album, referencing west Oslo and wealth. Along with this, it also plays upon, as contributors on Genius.com point out, a sketch comedy show poking fun at Montebello and, more importantly, a historical link to a ship from the late 1800s. During the 1800s, countless Norwegians left Norway and emigrated to the United States. Between 1836-1900, 522,453 Norwegians emigrated to the United States.
During the latter part of this period, ships would bring passengers from Norway to England. From there, they would catch larger vessels to the United States. The S/S Montebello was part of the Wilson Line, taking passengers to Hull, England. The key here, of course, is that the Montebello facilitated immigration, bringing Norwegians to the United States. These immigrants came seeking to escape from poverty and hoping to make a better life for themselves in a new country. Sound familiar?
Recall in «Lett å være rebell i kjellerleiligheten din» that Magdi pulls quotes from the comments sections for online articles, particularly articles focusing on the 2015 refugee situation. A few of the lines he uses directly play into this connection with the S/S Montebello serving as a vessel for immigration. He raps,
Ankerbarna dine kom, så mokkamenn kan vinne i lotteri?
(Er det dette skattepenga mine går til?)
De sa de kom fra fattigdom, men hadde råd til båt hit
(Er det dette skattepenga mine går til?)
Anchor babies can come, so mocha men can win the lottery?
(Is this what my tax deduction is going to?)
They say they come from poverty, but could afford a boat here
(Is this what my tax deduction is going to?)
The reference to anchor babies, while clearly being a reference to immigrant children born in Norway, can also be seen in relation to Norwegian immigration to the United States and birthright citizenship there, something the current administration looked to challenge last fall. Along with this, the next line questions the status of the migrant or asylum seeker by saying the person had enough money to use a boat. Again, the link becomes clear because if those leaving Norway in the 1800s sought to escape poverty for better opportunities, couldn’t the same comment be used for them?
This connection links Norway’s past, specifically the emigrants who left Norway for another country, to the current debates surrounding immigrants and asylum seekers coming to Norway in the twenty-first century. As well, this connection calls out the hypocrisy of the present through an implicit linking of 18th century Norwegian emigrants and 21st century migrants and asylum seekers coming to Norway.
Another aspect of the refrain that needs to be teased out is the use of «neger» (“negro”) at the end of two of the lines. In Norway, «neger» is a derogatory term akin to the n-word in the United States. In her 2005 article “Normalising racial boundaries. The Norwegian dispute about the term neger,” social anthropologist Marianne Gullestad looks at the public debate surrounding the term from 2000-2001 when the Afrikan Youth in Norway organization’s calls for a public debate occurred after John Ertzgaard, “a well-known black athlete,” wrote a letter to the editor of Dagbladet. Ertzgaard wrote,
The truth is that the word has a malevolent and very negative history. Africans have never referred to themselves as negre [plural for neger]. Europeans have used this word to describe black people from he African continent. The words was used during the slave period. Africans commanded little respect as human beings; they were treated like animals and a pest . . .
‘I am not a neger from Toten, but a Norwegian-African!’
Ertzgaard’s words echo James Baldwin who stated, “We have invented the nigger. I haven’t invented it. White people have invented it.” This, of course, is a broader conversation on the construction and use of language, something that both Ertzgaard and Baldwin point out. It is something I have written about numerous times on this blog, so I do not want to dive into it again here.
What I do want to point out, though, are the ways that Ertzgaard’s comments and the ways that Karpe use «neger» in «Hvit menn som push 50» work to confront specific constructions of identity in Norway, specifically the discussions of what it means it to be “ethnic Norwegian.” I wrote about this some when looking at Pumba’s «Hvor jeg kommer fra». What does it mean for Magdi and Chirag use this word in the refrain?
Karpe themselves address the use of «neger» and whether or not they feel the crowd should be allowed to sing along. The discussion mirrors, in may ways, discussions that artists such as Kendrick Lamar and YG have with whether or not white audiences should be allowed to use certain words during concerts. In fact, this topic even arose in the Norwegian press when Lamar performed in Oslo.
Magdi and Chirag both talk about concerts they attended: Lamar and YG. At the Lamar concert, in Norway, Chriag states that Lamar began the concert by pointing out that there were a lot of white people in the audience and it was ok for them to sing along. In Austin, TX, Magdi attended a YG concert with his wife, and there, he felt light skinned and uncomfortable with using the word. He continues by stating that in Norway he is of immigrant background, the son of a Norwegian mother and Egyptian father, but in Austin, he felt white. Magdi’s comments highlight, in many ways, some of the things I have been talking about, namely the ways that language constructs meaning and race.
Magdi realizes the cultural differences, specifically with him at the YG show but also with whether or not audiences in Norway should be allowed to say the word when they sing «Hvite menn som pusher 50». He states, «: Her er det viktig å påpeke at det er helt greit for oss, men det er jo ikke nødvendigvis greit for alle andre.» (“Here it is important to point out that it is all right for us, but it is not necessarily okay for everyone else.”)
Again, this is something I have thought about a lot, especially in relation to songs such as «Lett å være rebell i kjellerleiligheten din». What makes this stand out, of course, is the cultural and historical differences, or I would say collective memory, that does not allow individuals to entirely recognize the problematic nature with these words. This aspect really hit home not just when watching a live performance of «Lett å være rebell i kjellerleiligheten din». It hit home when watching a live performance of «Hvit menn som push 50» where Magdi, dressed as the white man pushing 50, sits among a rich, white family, and sings the refrain. On his right is a young girl. In the video, you can see her mouthing the words of the refrain along with Magdi. What does this do? (I plan to talk about the videos in another post.)
For me, the use of «neger» in «Hvit menn som push 50» serves as a comment on the ways that Montebello views Magdi and Chirag. They do not view them as equals, but instead view them as inferior due to the fact that their families immigrated here. “Hello Montebello” can be read as the community welcoming new people, but the insertion of «neger» after that introduction directly undercuts it, pointing out that the welcoming exists as nothing more than a platitude, a semblance of acceptance.
This semblance of acceptance plays out in Karpe’s 2008 song «Vestkantsvartinga» (“No West Side Blacks”). In the song, which features Pumba, Magdi and Chirag each rap about being on the west side of Oslo, being Muslim and Hindu respectively, and the ways that the community, including the school, treated them based on skin color and religion. Magdi confronts teachers about their unwillingness to learn how to pronounce his name, friends for not knowing what Ramadan is, an other issues. Chirag raps about moving from the west side to the east, experiencing the opposite spectrum where he was viewed as not being black enough, even being labeled a «kokosnøtt» (“coconut”), brown on the outside and white on the inside.
Along with this undercutting of Montebello, the use of «neger» can also serve as a greeting from Karpe themselves, telling Montebello we’re here, get ready. In this way, the greeting works as direct confrontation to Montebello and the ways that it upholds its own constructed ideas of whiteness and race. I prefer this reading in a way because of the ways that Karpe address these issues throughout the album; however, I think we need to think about the refrain in both ways, because in so doing it opens up the myriad of ways that the album wrestles with social constructions of race and identity in a Norwegian context and it directly confronts those constructions.
Next post, I’ll dive into a deeper discussion of the song, looking at Magdi’s and Chirag’s verses. Until then, what are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.
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